Discovery of the Body
Art work of the Heian period (794-1185) reveals a culture fascinated with the cloaked body. Aristocratic women were swathed in layer upon layer of material, and the silk that encased them became the currency for a barter economy. Little mention is made in court literature of the body beneath the fabric. The body, unclothed, was more an object of ridicule than veneration. When did the body emerge, then as a tangible, marketable, trainable entity?
During the Meiji period (1868-1912), new conceptions of the body emerged through the concerted effort to incorporate Western knowledge and institutions. The advent of a Western-inspired modern academic curriculum spanning literature, law, science, technology, and medicine, together with the formation of political, legal, and military structures of empire, engendered a host of body images and representations that radically diverged from earlier examples. Programs of physical education, exercise, and sports gained currency, producing an unprecedented culture of physicality. Public spaces—parks, thoroughfares, museums, and the like— became venues for display and spectatorship. The national body, too, was in the process of being strengthened under the aegis of the dominant imperialist paradigm. Science and technology combined to improve public health, treat disease, and build efficient cities, while the schools fostered notions of moral health and physical well-being. Notions of disciplining the body led to new systems of incarceration and types of corporal punishment.
In the sphere of literature and fine arts, Western-inspired movements such as Romanticism and Naturalism yielded new conceptions and representations of the body in its physical and sensual aspects. For young Japanese poets, painters, and fiction writers, self-portrayal emerged as a vehicle for radically-new constructions of self and subjectivity. Literary depictions of the physical body, coupled with an often conflicted awareness of one’s physicality, reflected the complex engagement in Meiji culture between realistic, empirical observation and an understanding of the psychological and emotion underpinnings of self and society.
In the first seminar we will discuss premodern attitudes toward the body and the discovery and treatment of disease. Our invited scholars will guide our discussions of the impact of modernization on science and technology, gender, health care, and police systems. And we will examine the birth of modern Japanese literature.